A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists 3,400-year-old Mittani Empire-era city has been discovered which was once located on the banks of the Tigris River. The settlement arose from the waters of the Mosul reservoir earlier this year when water levels dropped rapidly. Due to the extreme drought in Iraq. The sprawling city, with a palace and several large buildings, could be ancient Zakhiku, believed to have been an important center in the Mittani Empire (ca. 1550-1350 BC).
Iraq is one of the countries in the world most affected by climate change. The south of the country in particular has been suffering from extreme drought for months. To prevent crops from drying out, large amounts of water have been withdrawn from the Mosul Reservoir, Iraq’s most important water storage, since December. This uncovered a Bronze Age city that had been submerged decades ago without prior archaeological investigations. It is located in Kemune, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.
This unexpected discovery has pushed archaeologists to carry out an emergency campaign to excavate and document at least part of this great and important city as quickly as possible before it submerges again. Kurdish archaeologist Dr. Hasan Ahmed Qasim, Chairman of the Kurdistan Archeology Organization, and German archaeologists Jun.-Prof. Dr. Ivana Puljiz (University of Freiburg) and Prof. Dr. Peter Pfälzner (University of Tübingen) spontaneously decided to undertake joint salvage excavations at Kemune. These took place in January and February 2022, in collaboration with the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Duhok (Kurdistan Region).
Within days a team was assembled for the rescue excavations. Short-term funding for the work was obtained from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation through the University of Freiburg.
In a short time, the researchers managed to largely map the city. In addition to a palace, which had already been documented during a brief campaign in 2018, other large buildings were discovered: a massive fortification with walls and towers, a monumental multi-story storage building, and an industrial complex. The sprawling urban complex dates from the time of the Mittani Empire (ca. 1550-1350 BC), which controlled much of northern Mesopotamia and Syria.
“The huge warehouse building is of particular importance because huge amounts of goods must have been stored in it, probably brought from all over the region,” says Ivana Puljiz. Hasan Qasim concludes: “The excavation results show that the site was an important center in the Mittani Empire.”
The research team was amazed by the good state of preservation of the walls, sometimes several meters high, despite the fact that the walls are made of sun-dried mud bricks and were under water for more than 40 years. This good preservation is due to the fact that the city was destroyed by an earthquake around 1350 BC, during which the upper parts of the walls collapsed and buried the lower parts of the buildings, protecting these remains.
Of particular interest is the discovery of five ceramic vessels containing an archive of more than 100 cuneiform tablets. They date from the Middle Assyrian period, shortly after the earthquake leveled the city. Some tablets, which may be letters, are still in their clay envelopes. The researchers hope that this discovery will provide important information about the end of the Mittani period city and the beginning of Assyrian rule in the region. “It is almost a miracle that cuneiform tablets made of unfired clay survived so many decades under water,” says Peter Pfälzner.
To prevent further damage to the important site from rising water, the excavated buildings were completely covered with tight-fitting plastic sheeting and capped with gravel fill as part of an extensive conservation project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. This is to protect the unfired clay walls and any other finds still hidden in the ruins during times of flooding.
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